Return matchup between Football Championship Subdivision heavyweights. Georgia Southern is FCS royalty, with six national championships and 19 playoff appearances. FCS newbie, and soon to be departing, ODU has made postseason both years of CAA membership. They staged a remarkable shootout last December in Statesboro, Ga., a 55-48 Eagles' victory that came down to an onside kick in the final minute. No reason to think today's game will unfold any differently, not with two big-time offenses filled with playmakers capable of shredding opposing defenses.
Train travel or air travel? Steak or lobster? Both get you there. Both fill you up. Besides that, they couldn't be more different. ODU's pass-first, spread offense leads FCS in scoring (46 ppg), passing (391.6 ypg) and total offense (549.4 ypg). QB Taylor Heinicke leads in passing (387.9) and total offense (423.1) and has accounted for 51 TDs, passing and rushing. Eight different receivers have at least 20 catches. Georgia Southern and its triple option offense lead FCS in rushing (393.2 ypg). QB Jerick McKinnon (1,478 yds rushing, 15 TD) is a superior athlete, and back Dominique Swope (983 yds, 14 TD) torched ODU for 255 yards last season. Six players have rushed for at least 400 yards. ODU's run game is complementary, while Georgia Southern passes only seven times per game, though often for big gains.
Statistically, ODU's defense looks very similar to last year. The Monarchs allow points (28.9 ppg) and yards (402.3 ypg) and have struggled at times. But this season, they have played well when they had to, particularly in the fourth quarter. Tackle Chris Burnette anchors the line, linebacker Craig Wilkins the back seven. They feel much better prepared to face Georgia Southern's triple option this time. The Eagles are in the top third of most national defensive statistics, though they allow 202 yards passing per game, competing in a league with few high-powered passing games. Tackle Brent Russell is a star, and safety J.J. Wilcox was invited to the Senior Bowl.
ODU has a clear edge in kickers, with PK Jarod Brown and P Jonathan Plisco, while Georgia Southern has an edge in returns and kick coverage. Brown is 10-for-12 on field goals and has 29 touchbacks, while Plisco and Heinicke, who often quick-kicks in the opponents' end of the field, average 42.9 yards per punt. Georgia Southern's kickers are just 8-for-19 on field goals and average 36.9 yards per punt. Wilcox averages 25 yards per kickoff return, and the Eagles hold opponents under 20 yards per kickoff return and to 1.5 yards per punt return.
Both staffs do what they do exceptionally well, particularly on the offensive side. For ODU, Brian Scott's offense operates at a high level when Heinicke spreads the field and gets the ball to receivers on short routes, in space. Georgia Southern offensive coordinator Brent Davis and QB coach Mitch Ware have done an outstanding job developing McKinnon, who was a multi-purpose player and didn't become the full-time starter until game five. New ODU defensive coordinator Bill Dee has done a solid job simplifying schemes and emphasizing fundamentals, while Georgia Southern counterpart Jack Curtis has upgraded his group in just his second year.
ODU has the benefit of playing at home, where the Monarchs are 12-2 the past two seasons. Home teams are 24-6 in the playoffs in 2011 and '12. The defense that slows the other's offense, whether by turnover or simply recording a few stops, will have the advantage. Georgia Southern didn't punt in last year's game and played with a lead much of the second half. It would behoove the Monarchs to make GSU play from behind, since the triple option isn't a hurry-up-and-score kind of scheme — unless the Monarchs miss assignments and forget to tackle.
PREDICTION: Georgia Southern 51-48.